Tag Archives: relationships

How can we truly help clients in a relationship?

By Chris Warren-Dickins April 4, 2019

Couples therapy has been around for years, so it is easy to believe that we know everything we need to know about its underlying principles. Assumptions can lead to an overly narrow perspective, however, so I’d like to offer 10 ideas on which to reflect when it comes to couples therapy.

 

1) “Couples” are actually “relationships”: Perhaps the first way to truly help couples is to stop using that very term — couples. That’s because the term assumes a monogamous relationship between only two people and therefore excludes polyamorous relationships and any other type of romantic relationship. It might be argued that the term leaks something about our personal values, much like an assumption that a “marriage” can be between only a man and a woman. For that reason, I prefer to use “relationships” instead of “couples work,” and I refer to “clients in the relationship” rather than the “couple.”

2) Leakages of personal values: Of course, there is a risk that as counselors, we also leak our personal values in individual work. But it seems to me that the greater the number of clients sitting in the room with us, the greater the chance for this leaking to occur. When we work with relationships, we often see the interaction between the different members of that relationship. In real time, we bear witness to the dynamics of that relationship, and it can be challenging to have that played out before our very eyes. 

In our training, we are encouraged to intervene a great deal more in our work with relationships than we might if we were working with an individual client. We are told that there are more opportunities to offer alternative ways of relating to each other, and if we do not seize these opportunities, then the relationship may end up following the same patterns and learning nothing from therapy.

The question is, what is informing our intervention? Is it what we are actually witnessing in the relationship, or is it our own personal values and assumptions? For example, if we are witnessing a male and female client in a relationship, are we inclined to assume that the male client will be more domineering than the female client? I have worked with a number of professionals who made assumptions about domestic abuse, sexual violence and domineering behavior in general. They often leaked their assumptions that the only possible victims in these scenarios were female and that the only possible perpetrators were male.

The ACA Code of Ethics is clear. Standard A.11.b. says that a counselor should not refer a client to another counselor simply because there is a conflict in “personally held values” between the counselor and the client. Instead, counselors should “respect the diversity of clients and seek training in areas in which they are at risk of imposing their values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.” I would imagine that this can prove extremely difficult for some counselors, particularly if their personal (for example, religious) values conflict with the client’s goals. However, as we have seen from cases such as Ward v. Wilbanks and Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, this does not give a counselor the right to refuse to work with that client. 

3) Formed alliances: If our own personal values are more in line with one of the clients than the other member(s) of the relationship, we could easily get dragged into an alliance with that client. For example, the counselor might share with one of the members of the relationship the personal value that a relationship must be preserved at great cost when there are children involved. But if this does not reflect the personal values of all members of the relationship, the counselor’s role is to remain focused on the goals agreed to by all the members of the relationship. To help with this, we can remind ourselves that the dilemma is not ours to resolve. We can work hard to help the members of the relationship resolve the dilemma, but we do not have to resolve it for ourselves.

Individual client work requires us to monitor the boundary between us and the client. But when we work with a relationship, the boundaries are multiplied. Yes, we monitor the boundary between ourselves and each client who forms that relationship, but we also monitor the boundary between each member of the relationship. Stephen Karpman’s drama triangle can take on an interestingly multidimensional feel to it because we can be one client’s Rescuer while simultaneously being another client’s Persecutor.

4) The blame game: Linked to the drama triangle, we also need to tread carefully as counselors so that we avoid the blame game. All relationships engage in the blame game to some degree, no matter how hard its members try to avoid it. To reduce the frequency, however, we should keep returning the relationship’s focus back to the present moment. The focus should be more on what is happening rather than on why — and who may or may not have caused it. Frequently, an opportunity exists to work together to resolve things, and the collaborative nature often can form a new bond.

One big step toward this is to adopt a relative perspective: There are no absolute rights and wrongs, there is only perspective. If each member of the relationship can show the other member(s) that they are willing to adopt this approach, it can allow for disagreement.

5) Commitment issues: I have often worked with relationships in which one individual was more committed to therapy than was the other(s). The shadow side of this is that sometimes the committed member of the relationship really wanted proscribed therapy for their “problematic” partner(s). They were not interested in looking at how each member of the relationship might have caused problems for the relationship and how that all interacted. This needs to be tackled early on if the work is going to continue. The party who appears “committed” to therapy needs to understand that all members of the relationship are clients, and all members need to examine how their processes may impact on the relationship.

6) Fine-tuning rather than replacing: Our job as counselors is to observe the relationship, witness reports by the clients in the relationship about interactions, create hypotheses about where things might be going wrong, and then help the relationship to establish a revised approach to these issues.

Often, members of a relationship will assume that the relationship is fundamentally flawed. After all, clients rarely seek help unless things have started to go seriously wrong. At this point of crisis, it is hard for them to see how different things could be with a simple fine-tuning instead of a complete replacement. Our job is to support them as they try this fine-tuning. We need to emphasize the strengths and resources that exist in the relationship.

7) Building foundations, not fighting fires: As we emphasize their strengths, we will help the members of the relationship look to the future by developing strategies to resolve their issues. To do this, to really build the foundations of a sustainable relationship, we need to avoid the temptation of looking to the present or the past and trying to fight every issue that erupts.

Instead, we can teach members of the relationship about assertive communication. Often, people don’t really understand the difference between assertive, aggressive and passive (or manipulative) behavior. Counselors should monitor their work for assumptions made about assertiveness, including gender assumptions. For example, I have worked with male clients who have reported quite damaging experiences with therapists who jumped to conclusions about the male member of the relationship, forming an alliance with the female member of the relationship and overlooking (or remaining unaware of) her bullying behavior.

Empathic listening is another key skill to teach the members of the relationship. When I focus on this, I really stress the words “understanding” and “support.” It can be transformative for members of a relationship to see that their partners are willing to try and see the other person’s perspective. It can also help because they are showing their partners that they are willing to support them and help them work it out as a union. The worst feeling is when someone is struggling and they feel they are struggling alone because no one is willing to try to understand and support them.

8) The whole is greater than the sum of its parts: Our clients bring their histories into the relationships they form, no matter how much they try to avoid this. There are parts of them that are made fragile — broken even — because of people from their past. The other members of the relationship might not even know this until they come across that part of their loved one and there is a subsequent explosion, withdrawal or threat of an end to the relationship. Our job as counselors is to help each member of the relationship gain perspective on this. Each member needs help in seeing that this wound is from the past and that agreement may need to be formed about how members of the relationship will approach this in the future.

One example is the wound of discrimination. Counselors should not underestimate the impact that the experience of discrimination has on a person’s ability to trust and form relationships. With members of the relationship who are ethnic or religious minorities or part of the LGBTQ+ community, counselors need to assess not only how much this discrimination affects their relationship now but also what experiences of discrimination each member of the relationship has endured in the past. For example, if one of the members of the relationship grew up as gay in the 1970s, they would have a vastly different outlook on their sexual identity and their relationship than would someone who grew up as gay in the ’90s.

When I worked at an LGBTQ+ organization in London, we encountered a number of Muslim asylum seekers who were fleeing homophobia in countries such as Uganda, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The wounds they brought to a relationship were vastly different from those experienced by their partners who had grown up as Christian gay men, or even Muslims, in London. 

9) Basic structuring: As I have outlined, there are additional complexities to working with relationships. There are multiple layers of boundaries to manage; there are in-person, live playouts of the dynamics within the relationship; there are greater opportunities for our personal values to be leaked; and there are greater opportunities to unintentionally form an alliance with one member of the relationship over the other(s). As a result, the basic structure of a therapy session with a relationship should be different. Sessions will tend to be longer than the typical “therapeutic hour,” and counselors should offer to see each member of the relationship separately as part of the assessment process. 

10) The healing power of play: To help the relationship develop open channels of communication, counselors might consider offering clients an exercise or two to try outside of session. There are a wide range of exercises available, including the Johari window (developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham) and the various exercises (even card games) available via the Gottman Institute. Games and exercises can loosen things up a bit, opening the possibility for people to release the roles they may have been adopting in the relationship. The Johari window helps people discover their own, and other people’s, blind spots. With greater self-awareness, and greater awareness of the other people in the relationship, it is easier to communicate feelings and needs. Without open communication, mistrust is inevitable, and a relationship without trust is like trying to grow a flower without light.

 

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Chris Warren-Dickins is a licensed professional counselor in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Before becoming a counselor, he practiced as a lawyer and taught law at the postgraduate level in the United Kingdom. Contact him at chris@exploretransform.com or through his website at exploretransform.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Relationship management

By Laurie Meyers January 24, 2019

Consider the words of a certain New Jersey troubadour:

Everybody needs a place to rest

Everybody wants to have a home

Don’t make no difference what nobody says

Ain’t nobody like to be alone.

This declaration is from Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 single “Hungry Heart,” which tells the story of a restless man who believed contentment could be found in ceaseless wandering, in never putting down roots or making connections. Over the years, however, the man realizes that he is alone, tired and lonely. Without close relationships, he has nowhere to turn when he is weary and in need of succor. He comes to understand that “home” can be found in the people we are close to.

“Hungry Heart” was Springsteen’s first top 10 hit as a performer. The song’s memorable and upbeat melody may partially explain its popularity. But perhaps its appeal also comes from listeners’ recognition of an essential truth revealed in its lyrics: People are not meant to go through life alone.

“We are social creatures,” says David Kaplan, who is retiring this month as the American Counseling Association’s chief professional officer. “We are meant to be with other people. We thrive with other people. Communication [with others] promotes community and a sense of connectedness. Lack of communication promotes isolation and dysphoria. It also predicts an earlier death.”

Indeed, research has shown that social relationships serve as a buffer against stress and are a protective factor against the risk of disease. According to a research review published in the May 2015 issue of the journal Current Opinion in Psychology, in the face of chronic adversity, adults who are socially integrated — meaning that they possess a network of close relationships — have a 50 percent higher survival rate than those who are socially isolated. In fact, social support has a more significant effect on mortality than do behavioral risk factors such as obesity and alcohol consumption.

The effect of social relationships on health is both direct (e.g., promoting well-being) and indirect (e.g., reducing or blocking exposure to stressful events or minimizing the physical effects of stress). Recent research has focused on how social relationships minimize the impact of stressful events. The body responds to acute stress by mobilizing the neuroendocrine, autonomic, immune and metabolic systems. Over time, this mobilization can cause wear and tear on the body (called the allostatic load). Social support seems to lower the body’s allostatic load — with support being a key word. Research indicates that it isn’t enough to simply have social “ties.” Not surprisingly, negative, stressful relationships can actually have an adverse effect on a person’s physical and emotional health.

Of course, professional counselors, who build their work around the therapeutic bond, are already well aware of the vital role that supportive relationships play in people’s lives. Using this crucial relationship, counselors can help teach clients how to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships in all areas of their lives.

Why can’t we be friends?

The bonds formed between friends can be just as important as those within families. But in our fast-paced, global and mobile society, maintaining friendships can be challenging, especially as adults. People move away, develop new interests or start families and find it difficult to consistently make time for those outside of their family units. Suddenly, adults can find their friendship pool depleted, and they’re left struggling to remember how to make new friends.

As children, we are placed in environments that make it easier to form bonds. We go to school with others our age and participate in shared interests such as club activities and team sports. But as adults, these kinds of opportunities aren’t as readily available, notes Kailee Place, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Charleston, South Carolina, whose specialties include helping women with relationship difficulties. As a result, adults generally have to actively seek out ways to meet people and build bonds.

One way counselors can assist in this effort is by brainstorming with clients about their interests and values, thus making it clearer what types of things they are looking for in their adult friendship, Place says. “Counselors also model healthy relationship dynamics in the therapeutic environment, providing room for vulnerability without judgment, actively listening to [clients], providing feedback and generally fostering respect and compassion. This helps lay the groundwork for healthy relationships in the future or can challenge any current toxic relationships [that clients] may have,” Place says.

“Sometimes, clients need a refresher course on social skills and social cues,” Place continues. “This includes how to use small talk to build into more substantial conversation, how to maintain eye contact [and] how to recognize different facial expressions or the meaning behind different tones of voice. During counseling sessions, we can practice these skills [with clients], perhaps using role-play activities, going through exercises to recognize and identify facial expressions, working toward greater comfort with eye contact and gaining comfort in sharing details about themselves.”

Active listening is another essential skill for developing and maintaining adult friendships, says Kaplan, a past president of both ACA and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors, a division of ACA. As he explains, when people listen to someone else and then reflect back in their own words what that person just said, it conveys a message that the speaker matters to the listener. And how do clients learn the skill of active listening? By practicing, Kaplan says.

Melody Li, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas, agrees. She often has clients sit facing a partner, a family member or Li herself to practice reflecting back not just what the other person said but also the corresponding emotions embedded in the communication.

Part of being present and attuned is meeting a partner at a similar emotional level, Li explains. For instance, if a person is recounting something that angered them, such as an incident at work, and the listener conveys nonchalance, then the speaker will feel not only unheard but unsupported, she says.

Sherry Lewis is an LPC in Boulder, Colorado, who specializes in helping individuals, parents and families develop stronger emotional and relationship skills. She also holds workshops for children and adolescents on friendship skills and says that much of what she teaches in those workshops can benefit adults as well. In fact, Lewis regularly encourages parents to “listen in.”

“With the kids, we brainstorm things they think make people like or dislike others. Then we go back through the list and rethink the things listed,” she says. “Almost everyone, consciously or unconsciously, tries superficial ways to be liked or accepted by looking a certain way, performing or doing things to be liked, etc., but those are not the things that really make a difference. As the kids in the classes cross off more of the things they originally thought made friends, such as being smart, having things, being good at sports, art, etc., I ask them if they see a pattern. The kids figure out that it’s the way we treat others and how we make them feel that underlies others wanting to be around us more or less. This realization makes friendship less of a mystery and something anyone can improve by acting in ways that make others feel comfortable or positive.”

Lewis adds that maintaining social skills is an ongoing process that everyone needs to practice across the life span as they interact with the people in their lives. From Lewis’ perspective, we have become technologically overconnected as a society, while simultaneously allowing ourselves to grow personally disconnected.

Similarly, Li thinks the rise of social media has had an overall negative effect on people forming and growing interpersonal connections. She argues that social media “can give people the impression that they’re making a connection. A bite-sized piece of connection feels gratifying in the moment, but it is not satiating or meaningful in the long run.” She also believes that the frantic nature of continuously updating social media and news feeds has shortened people’s attention spans and harmed their ability to listen patiently.

Kaplan, on the other hand, doesn’t think that social media interferes with people starting and maintaining relationships. In his view, it is just another way to communicate, and frequent communication is essential to relationships.

“There needs to be quantity,” he says. “It might be online, verbal or face-to-face, [but] in one form or another, there’s no substitute for a quantity of communication with people that you care about.”

Kaplan and Li do agree about the adverse effects of another area of technology, however — the practice some people have of repeatedly scanning their smartphones while interacting with others. Although quantity of communication is important, so is quality, and being able to give full attention to what others are saying is a critical component of forging relationships. When spending time with someone they care about, people should put their phones away, Kaplan says. That advice might seem elementary, but in this day and age, counselors likely need to share it with clients who are working on their relationship skills:   

Feeling awkward

Making and maintaining new connections can be especially difficult if a client is shy or has social anxiety. All hope is not lost, however.

“Counselors can help immensely with debilitating shyness or social anxiety,” Place says. “Most people have some amount of anxiety or nerves when approaching new people, especially if the motivation is building a friendship.”

Place suggests that clients who struggle with social anxiety use grounding techniques such as slow, intentional breathing; carry a small object to fiddle with to channel nervous energy; or use a lotion with a calming scent such as lavender.

“I also encourage clients to challenge any irrational thinking they may be experiencing, such as dwelling on the assumption that people don’t like them, and to come to more accurate conclusions with the proof they have in front of them,” she says. “Keeping the mantra ‘this is temporary’ in mind is also helpful [because] emotions come and go, so those anxious feelings will come and go as well.”

Eventually, Place says, clients have to test their coping skills in the real world so they can build confidence and experience. “Starting out small and safe is key to building a base of confidence and motivation,” she explains. “This can include striking up a conversation with a co-worker that a client feels relatively comfortable around or getting involved in a class of some sort where most people have a common interest. That common interest or common environment can take away the pressure of coming up with subjects to discuss. As these interactions go positively, clients see their ability and, ideally, build their energy and motivation toward more difficult social interactions.”

Li says it can be helpful for clients to be upfront about telling people that they’re shy and often don’t speak up right away but still welcome interaction.

Sometimes anxiety arises because the client feels socially awkward. “We’re all awkward. Some of us just fake it better than others,” says Li, who encourages clients to own their awkwardness and be open about it. She also works with clients to determine if there is something specific that is driving their perceived awkwardness, such as a particular incident or trauma.

Playing (and working) well with others

People might not automatically associate relationship skills with the workplace. Yet most people spend a significant amount of time at the office, which typically requires lots of interacting with co-workers. Negative office relationships not only contribute to unpleasant or downright dysfunctional environments; they can also affect how — or whether — clients fulfill their professional responsibilities.

Jessi Eden Brown is an LPC and a licensed mental health counselor in the Seattle area who specializes in workplace-related stress, work trauma and workplace bullying. She tells her clients that they don’t have to be friends with their co-workers; instead, they should strive for mutual respect and professionalism. Friendship — if it happens — is a bonus.

In addition to honing basic relationship skills such as having empathy and compassion, developing self-insight and being more accommodating, Brown teaches clients how to set a tone for working with others, how to give and receive feedback in the workplace, and how to resolve conflict.

Brown, a member of ACA, most frequently brings up tone setting when clients are preparing to start a new job or project, accept a transfer or change careers. “The process involves helping clients reflect on any changes they might want to make as they start over,” she says. “I often frame it as a way to redefine who you want to be at work.”

“Setting the tone includes thinking about relationships in the workplace. We’ll explore questions such as how much about yourself do you want to share with your new co-workers? Are there any reasons to be cautious at first — as is generally the case with bullied targets who are starting over? What strengths would you like to showcase? In what ways do you want to grow professionally? Are there any habits or behaviors you want to leave behind?”

Defining the desired tone allows clients to identify their goals and then work with Brown to brainstorm steps for achieving them. Brown believes this helps create a road map for clients to correct previous problems and approach situations in a new way. Once Brown and the client have developed that road map, she uses psychoeducation, modeling and role-play to work with the client on any specific skills that might be required, such as assertive communication skills, impulse control and anger management.

Giving and receiving feedback is an essential, yet frequently unpleasant, part of workplace relationships. Brown encourages clients to use “I” statements and to engage in reflective listening. When giving feedback, she is a fan of the feedback “sandwich,” in which the person providing the feedback opens with a positive statement about the recipient’s performance, follows up with an explanation of what the recipient needs to work on and closes with a general positive comment such as, “Overall, you’re doing really well.”

On the other side of the coin, Brown encourages clients to approach receiving feedback with an open mind, reminding themselves that they will probably hear information that they won’t like. Another piece of advice she gives: “You don’t have to respond in the moment — ever. If you hear feedback and feel defensive, tell them [the person giving feedback] that you need time to respond.” Clients can then take that time to ask themselves why they reacted defensively and to consider how they want to respond to the feedback, Brown says. Taking the needed time to gather their thoughts allows clients to re-engage and enter into a more productive discussion concerning the feedback, she explains.

All relationships have conflict, but conflict in the workplace can be particularly uncomfortable, especially if it involves a power differential, such as an employee who has a run-in with a supervisor who signs the paychecks. Brown starts by trying to normalize conflict for her clients, telling them that it’s everywhere. She also advises clients to observe their co-workers.

“Is there someone at work who seems to handle conflict particularly well? How are they doing it?” she asks. “You may even be able to tap them for information.”

Brown recommends that clients take a direct, solution-focused approach to dealing with conflict, including coming to the table with ideas for resolving the problem. If that approach doesn’t work, she advises clients to go through official avenues such as the human resources department.

But what happens when the conflict is with a supervisor or co-worker who doesn’t respond to attempts to resolve the issue? Under such circumstances, Brown works with clients on ways to not internalize the conflict. When clients look around at the larger picture, she says, they often find that they aren’t the only target of conflict — the problematic manager or co-worker behaves that way with most people. Brown also encourages clients to try to apply the lens of humor to the situation or to find other ways to keep the conflict in perspective, such as reminding themselves that this represents only one area of their lives. It doesn’t stop them from continuing to engage in positive interactions with friends and family or from seeking their support.

Of course, conflict isn’t the only kind of drama people encounter when it comes to relationship dynamics in the workplace. Power struggles, gossip and general office politics can create an uncomfortable and precarious atmosphere, notes Maggie Graham, an LPC in the Fort Collins, Colorado, area who specializes in career counseling and coaching.

“If people are … mired in a situation where office politics are swirling around them, and they want to avoid getting pulled into the vortex, simple cues and redirections can be very effective at communicating a clear boundary around gossip while steering clear of judging and alienating co-workers,” she says.

Graham recommends techniques such as changing the topic when conversations veer into murky waters and using body language and clear statements to set boundaries. For example, she suggests clients can gently hold up a hand like a stop sign and say, “Oh, that’s not a topic I want to chime in on. It’s outside my scope of expertise.”

Taking a chance on romance

Much has been written on nurturing established romantic relationships, but what skills do clients need when still looking for love?

“Clients with attachment issues or relationship anxiety may deeply want a relationship but also fear it working out,” notes Rachel Dack, a licensed clinical professional counselor with a private practice in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in helping clients with dating, relationship and intimacy issues. “Fear may lead individuals to play games in dating or sabotage developing relationships due to not feeling worthy or confident that someone could actually like them. The fears can be so deeply ingrained that they approach dating with walls for protection or mental blocks that don’t allow them to connect despite really wanting a partner.”

Understanding behaviors that are driven by attachment issues, relationship anxiety and other internal belief systems is often a crucial part of resolving dating difficulties, says Dack, a member of ACA. For example, Dack had a single client in her 40s who repeatedly spent money on prospective partners and insisted on paying for everything while dating.

“She would plan elaborate dates and vacations for the men she was interested in and used her financial assets as a means to connect,” Dack says. “She often felt insecure and anxious that men didn’t want to date her. When we explored her belief system, she had deeply rooted beliefs that she was not good enough and was unworthy of being picked by a great guy.”

The client’s reliance on using money to attract men was ultimately self-defeating, Dack says, because even when someone continued to date her, she couldn’t help but question whether he would have asked her out if she hadn’t paid for everything. This created a constant sense of rejection in the client despite her success in getting dates.

“She [also] had a tendency to dominate the relationship when it came to logistics — planning dates, picking activities, paying all of the time — while holding back her feelings and acting standoffish with men despite her interest,” Dack explains. “She didn’t know how to relate to the men who wanted a more equal relationship in which they could also be generous and giving because she was scared they wouldn’t like her if she stopped paying. We worked to explore her underlying belief system and her thoughts on gender roles, healthy relationships, money, herself and men.”

Dack helped the client look at how these beliefs shaped her behavior and encouraged her to ask herself whether her approach was serving its intended purpose. “She realized that her negative mindset was interfering with her goal of a healthy partnership and that she wasn’t giving men the opportunity to get to know her in a deep way,” Dack says.

Together, they discussed how the client might behave differently if she believed she was worthy of love. Dack encouraged the client to allow herself to be more vulnerable by letting a man pursue her. She also urged the client to become more emotionally invested in her relationships.

“It was hard for her to accept a man who wanted to make her feel special, but she learned to become more comfortable with this through time and practice tolerating the discomfort,” Dack says. Dack also helped the client learn how to love and care for herself, which allowed her to accept love and care from others.

The process of forming an intimate connection — from early conversations to going on actual dates — can be a very scary or overwhelming undertaking for many people, Dack observes. She reminds clients that many of the negative scenarios they fear do not end up happening. Dack also helps clients reframe bad dates and past relationships — not only did the clients survive them, but they learned something that they can use going forward. “Clients often feel better when they take emotional risks aligned with their romantic goals [but] can feel hopeless when they avoid taking risks or give up on dating entirely,” she observes.

To prepare for dates, Dack has clients practice their active listening, communication and validation skills. “The balance of how much to speak and share versus how much to listen can be tricky to maneuver,” she says. “Often, clients fall on one extreme — either they are so eager to share about themselves that they do too much talking and oversharing, or they are very introverted, shy or scared to be vulnerable, so they prefer to sit back and do all of the listening.”

Many clients struggle with how to create a natural conversation flow, Dack adds. One of her clients, a man in his early 30s, had trouble getting more than one date with the women he pursued. He told Dack that women often said they didn’t feel a connection with him. As Dack and the client discussed how he typically interacted on dates, she helped him realize that because of his anxiety about potential rejection, he would ask numerous questions but not truly take in or indicate interest in his date’s responses.

Dack used role-play to train the client to slow down his questions, listen attentively and stay on topic for more extended periods of time. The client also practiced sharing his own experiences and emotions. “We explored what it means to connect and practiced validation skills so that his dates would feel heard, valued and understood,” Dack says.

Over time, the client’s enhanced ability to engage allowed him to achieve much better connections — and led to relationships that have extended well beyond one date.

 

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The power of forgiveness

“Forgiveness is important to relationships for many reasons, but primarily because it is a mechanism of healing ruptures that occur in all relationships,” says Veronica Johnson, an American Counseling Association member whose research focuses on forgiveness, conflict resolution and infidelity.

People who refuse to practice forgiveness in their relationships experience resentment, bitterness and anger, which can cause both physical and psychological problems, points out Johnson, an associate professor and chair of the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana.

Another reason forgiveness is essential to relationships is because it restores a sense of dignity and trust to both parties, Johnson says. “The offender is released from guilt and shame … [for] what they did, and the victim lets go of a desire to seek revenge and continue to punish their partner,” she explains. “In the presence of a good apology — which is also quite important in relationships — the victim’s dignity is also restored [because] they are validated in their experiences.”

Forgiveness, however, first requires a willingness to forgive, Johnson emphasizes. “Allowing clients the space to express the anger, resentment, grief, sadness and other host of emotions that accompany a relationship rupture is absolutely essential,” she says. “Only after the client feels validated and heard in expressing their experience can a counselor begin the process of helping the client see the effects that active unforgiveness has on their life.”

Johnson recommends Robert D. Enright’s book Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope as a resource. Enright emphasizes that therapists should never imply that clients must or even should forgive.

“Implying such can be experienced as blaming or retraumatizing for a client,” Johnson says. “We can help clients to see how their active unforgiveness impacts their life, and when they are ready to free themselves from the hurt, anger, bitterness, etc., then forgiveness becomes an option. The process of forgiveness that Enright proposes involves allowing oneself to fully experience the range of emotions that accompany the offense, actively choosing to forgive, working toward forgiveness by developing understanding and compassion for the offense and the offender, and discovering meaning, purpose and release from negative emotions associated with the offense.”

Johnson adds that forgiveness need not be accompanied by reconciliation. “We need to empower our clients to make decisions that are healthy for themselves and their relationships, and sometimes that might mean leaving an unhealthy relationship,” she says.

If the client is leaving an unhealthy relationship, the forgiveness work often shifts to self-forgiveness. These clients often need to learn how to forgive themselves for staying or for tolerating bad behavior in their partners, Johnson concludes.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books and DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Relationships in Counseling and the Counselor’s Life by Jeffrey A. Kottler and Richard S. Balkin
  • Mediating Conflict in Intimate Relationships, DVD, presented by Gerald Monk and John Winslade

Podcasts (aca.digitellinc.com/aca/store/5#cat14)

  • “Imago Relationship Therapy” with Susan Hammonds-White (ACA284)
  • “Love and Sex and Relationships” with Erica Goodstone (ACA231)

 

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Finding love in a ‘swipe left’ universe

By Bethany Bray November 28, 2018

When it comes to dating, it’s often said there are plenty of fish in the sea. But when you’re dangling a fishing pole in the seemingly vast ocean of online dating and not getting many nibbles, it can leave you with a seasick feeling. Or perhaps you’ve heard tales of other people connecting with really nice fish, but whenever you cast a line, all you seem to reel in are sharks and slippery eels.

Online dating can be a great way for people to meet those who are outside of their usual social circles and connect with potential partners whom they might never have crossed paths with otherwise. At the same time, getting to “happily ever after” can be an emotionally charged experience fraught with rejection and anxiety-provoking scenarios.

As with conventional dating, online dating carries with it the inherent risks of having bad dates and encountering hurtful behavior. But with online dating, the always-on nature of the technology allows users (perhaps encourages users is even more accurate) to check, recheck and overanalyze whether a potential match has viewed their profile, responded to a message or blocked the match entirely.

Yes, online dating carries the potential for disappointment and anxiety, acknowledges Rachel Dack, a licensed clinical professional counselor with a private practice in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in helping clients with dating, relationship and intimacy issues. However, she believes that online dating is a risk worth taking — if approached in a healthy way.

There are “normal highs and lows associated with online dating, and, unfortunately, many of those situations are unavoidable. … It’s helpful for counselors to understand that, oftentimes, online dating takes years [before finding the right relationship]. Helping clients with patience and setting realistic expectations is key,” says Dack, who writes and contributes relationship pointers for eHarmony and DatingAdvice.com. “Often, social media and pop culture can offer an unrealistic picture of it. It’s helpful to reframe a client’s view. It’s really important to normalize the online dating experience, including the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Fifteen percent of U.S. adults have used an online dating website or app, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Since 2013, usage of online dating has nearly tripled among adults ages 18-24 and doubled among those ages 55-64.

As online dating grows more widespread, it is also becoming more socially accepted. Pew reports that nearly half of all Americans know someone who uses online dating or has met a romantic partner online.

Online dating offers users opportunities to enter the dating pool at their own pace, pursuing and accepting as many messages and matches as they choose, notes Dack, a member of the American Counseling Association.

“It can be overwhelming to have as many choices as we have online, but at the same time, it’s an amazing opportunity to meet people,” she says. “Online dating can be a powerful tool for clients who are more shy or introverted and unlikely to approach new people in public. There can be a large sense of comfort found in starting communication [with a potential match] on a phone or computer and setting the pace for what communication looks like. You can get to know someone slowly, over time, instead of trying to approach someone and make decisions right away.”

 

Getting up to speed

The online dating market is a crowded one, with dozens of apps and programs available. Some require payment to join, and some are free. Some match users on the basis of sophisticated algorithms, whereas others allow users to “swipe” through profiles and choose only those that appeal to them. Certain apps are designed to allow only female users to make the first move of contacting another user. And yet others cater to LGBTQ consumers, those looking for matches of a certain religious faith or other demographics.

Although it isn’t necessary for counselors to know the nuances between all of these options, they should have a basic understanding of what online dating is and how it works so they can connect with clients who present with issues related to online dating in therapy sessions, says Mark J. Taliancich, a licensed professional counselor supervisor in New Orleans whose doctoral dissertation was on online dating. He suggests that counselors search for information online to bring themselves up to speed. Although scholarly research on the topic is limited, especially as it pertains to online dating’s connection to mental health, he says an internet search will yield plenty of consumer-focused reviews and news articles that detail the online dating experience and the pros and cons of different platforms. Should clients raise an issue specific to the online dating app they are using, Taliancich suggests having them talk through their experience in session.

Kathleen Smith, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., agrees. She says counselors should engage these clients by asking why they chose a particular app or platform and which features appealed to them. “It’s not the client’s job to teach you how it works, but also don’t just pretend that you understand,” Smith says. “Just having a basic knowledge can be important. [Online dating] is not just exchanging messages. Know which are the most-used apps and their features.”

Taliancich also stresses that counselors should drop any outdated or stereotypical assumptions they might harbor, such as the misconception that online dating is used only by people who are desperate or awkward and can’t find dates any other way.

“It’s similar to a multicultural issue, or working with a client who has an aspect of their culture that’s not familiar [to the counselor]. It requires doing a little research, a little homework. Realize that there’s a different process to each app,” says Taliancich, the clinical director of counseling solutions for the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans. “Don’t go off of assumptions or things you’ve heard. It’s really easy to say ‘online dating is dangerous.’ But when you dig down into it, it’s as dangerous as traditional dating. … Two common criticisms of online dating are that it’s dangerous and people lie [about themselves]. I would argue [those things] can be true of traditional dating just as much.”

 

Diving in

The nature of online dating can exacerbate mental health issues, including struggles with anxiety, self-esteem and setting boundaries. For some clients, it can also dredge up feelings related to past experiences with rejection, abandonment, loss or trauma. For example, a lack of replies to messages could be especially damaging to a client who has issues with self-worth or rejection. Similarly, selecting photos for an online profile can bring up issues for those who struggle with their body image.

“Dating can be a very triggering and uncomfortable experience based on [individuals’] personal mindset about themselves,” Dack says. “A lot of negative feelings [about yourself] can be reinforced through online dating.” At the same time, she adds, “If you’re working to be your best, that’s what you will attract. [Clients’] attitudes about themselves and connecting to others are a major factor in meeting others and the dating process.”

Counselors can help clients work through past issues that spill over into their online dating experiences and prepare them for the challenges that can be a natural part of dating, Dack says. She emphasizes the need to offer both a compassionate and realistic approach.

“With rejection, reinforce that it’s a normal part of the dating experience and probably has nothing to do with them. But [for some clients], their past is going to make them believe that it has everything to do with them,” Dack says. “Hold space for the client to feel their emotions about the past and really grieve and work through it.”

“Online dating is setting you up to get rejected more frequently — remember that,” she adds. “It’s really hard for us to grasp the concept that not everybody is supposed to like us or will like us, and that comes [up] with online dating.”

Smith says she has similar conversations with her clients, the majority of whom are women in their 20s and 30s. She counsels clients that it’s more important to focus on themselves and becoming the person they want to be rather than on what they think a potential match might be looking for.

“The ability to step back and remember yourself versus being anxious about how to make a person not break up with you, that puts the focus on things that are easier and calmer,” says Smith, whose doctoral dissertation was on cellphone use and anxiety. “Help people recognize that dating, especially online dating, is an anxious process. It’s very risky, and you can only control 50 percent of the process. If your anxiety spikes during the process, it doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong. You’re putting yourself out there and engaging with someone you don’t know who is allowed to reject you. It’s what you do to manage it and respond to it [that matters].”

 

Navigating the ups and downs

Counselors can help clients maintain a healthy perspective and remain true to themselves even as they navigate the sometimes-choppy waters of online dating. The following takeaways can provide some guidance.

Get to the why: One of the most helpful questions counselors can ask clients about online dating is why they chose to sign up in the first place. The answer can provide insights into the person’s goals, intent and motivations, says Taliancich, an adjunct professor in the master’s counseling program at the University of Holy Cross in New Orleans.

“It’s entirely possible to dive into online dating and never have to spend a night alone,” he says. “People can go on four, five or six dates a week, for whatever motivation. But it can be a way to escape something or not deal with another issue. There is a range of motivations, just as with traditional dating.”

At the same time, Taliancich stresses, counselors shouldn’t assume that every client makes a conscious choice to date online versus pursuing more traditional methods. For younger, more tech-savvy clients in particular, online dating may be the more accepted way to meet people. Others may simply feel it is the best option open to them for any number of reasons, such as there being no eligible matches in their immediate social circles.

Set a good pace: “Helping people get the right pace is a conversation I often have [with clients],” Smith says. “Make sure they focus on work and friends and the life they had before they started to date. Clients often focus on whether a relationship will work or not, but breaking it down into manageable steps can be helpful. People tend to be so terrified that they don’t [date] or are so obsessed that they turn dating into a full-time job and get burned out and frustrated. I have conversations with clients about taking breaks when they need to. There’s so much data, you can spend forever looking at it and go on tons of dates. It can be very overwhelming for people when they see so many potential matches and they forget themselves and what they’re looking for.”

Conduct a time check: It’s important to ask clients how much time they’re spending on online dating apps, Taliancich notes, because in many cases, they may not even realize the degree to which it is eating into other aspects of their life, such as schoolwork or connecting with friends. He explains that the apps draw people in with behavioral “rewards” for staying engaged, such as notifying them that a match has viewed their profile or the app has developed a batch of new matches for them to view.

Smith works with clients to monitor and create boundaries for the amount of time they spend focusing on online dating. This can be especially important for clients whose anxiety fluctuates according to the number of responses and attention they receive from matches. She recommends asking clients, “When does [online dating] get in the way? How can you direct yourself away from that when you need to?”

It can also be helpful to remind clients that they can turn their app notifications off entirely or change the settings so they don’t receive messages that are particularly triggering, such as when a match looks at their profile or blocks them, Smith notes.

“How [a client] engages with the apps and technology is such a good marker for their anxiety,” Smith says. “Ask them questions: ‘How often do you look at the app?’ Gauge how much of their time this is taking up. Are they dating reactively or thoughtfully? People might not own up to that at first, but if you ask, it may be surprising how much they are focusing on it.”

Know your client: Clients who have struggled with anxious or obsessive behaviors in the past may find it difficult to resist checking and rechecking a dating app for messages or new matches. A counselor who knows that a client is sensitive to rejection can help prepare that client to manage his or her reaction when the inevitable happens.

“If it’s someone you’ve been working with, you’ll know how likely they are to be compulsive or sucked into that experience,” says Taliancich, who met his wife through online dating. “People who feel invested by chatting with someone, they can take it a lot harder when they don’t get a response or [the match] stops replying. It feels a lot worse for them because the rejection feels a lot stronger — feeling that stab, over and over. Whereas people who don’t feel as invested in that initial part tend to navigate it a little easier because it doesn’t feel as much like a personal affront [to them].”

Similarly, Smith notes, clients who have a history of relying on relationships to regulate their moods may find it easy to fall into bad habits with online dating. “Your mood will ascend and descend based on dates, inevitably, but if your sense of self is coming from dating, it will be worse,” she says. “Have the client ask themselves, ‘If I’m not paying attention, what might happen? What do I need to be aware of, be mindful of? How can I be my best self?’”

Celebrate goals, not boyfriends or girlfriends: Clients may assume that success in online dating equates to finding a steady relationship. The reality, though, is that it simply won’t happen for everyone. Instead, Smith urges her clients to learn from each interaction and to celebrate each goal they reach.

“There’s also successes such as being able to go out on a date when they haven’t in a really long time. Celebrate that. Or have the goal that I’m going to do this [go on a date] and be OK the next day. And that’s great,” Smith says. “Having those clarifying experiences, even if they’re breakups, I would see as a victory. Next time, things will go more smoothly.”

Turn “failure” on its head: Smith recalls one client who began dating a match whom she really liked. However, he wouldn’t respond to her messages consistently, which “was driving her up the wall,” Smith says. Eventually, the client was able to talk calmly to him and explain what she needed, and the pair came to the mutual conclusion that the relationship wasn’t going to work out. Although some might have considered that a failure, Smith helped the client to see it as a success: She had learned for next time what she wanted and needed in a match.

Likewise, counselors can help their clients reframe some of the things they experience in online dating. “Everyone in life has to learn that rejection and disappointment is inevitable. You learn that in different ways, and dating is one way,” Smith explains. “If you can find humor in it, that can help. Set a goal of going on one terrible date or being rejected a couple of times. It can help to laugh at it a little. It makes it not so intimidating. You don’t necessarily have to get better at rejection, but know that it’s not a failure. Knowing that you can only control 50 percent of the process, it’s more about managing yourself than trying to control another person.”

Stay true to yourself: Smith sometimes suggests that clients create a list of “guiding principles” they can focus on during dating and refer back to when they start to feel anxious. The principles can be as simple as “be honest” or “be kind.” Other clients may need to add more specific benchmarks, such as, “Don’t check my dating app more than once each day.”

As Smith explains, the guiding principles can offer reassurance whenever clients have a bad date or other negative experience. “Focusing on what they can control in the dating process can help them calm down and feel less anxious,” she says. “Measure progress not on whether a person liked [you], but ‘Was I the person I wanted to be? Was I myself?’ If you’re doing that, then you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Similarly, Dack works with clients, particularly those who struggle with anxiety, to create predate rituals that can help them focus on goals they have set. The rituals — perhaps listening to a favorite music playlist or repeating a positive affirmation — help them prepare and quiet down their predate jitters, she says.

Use role-play: Dack suggests that counselors use role-play exercises in session with clients to prepare them for interacting on dates. She asks clients some of the sensitive questions that might come up (for example, “How long was your longest relationship?”) and gives them feedback on their responses. This can help teach clients what levels of self-disclosure are appropriate when meeting a potential match and how to express themselves in healthy, genuine ways, she says. It can be particularly beneficial for clients who struggle with vulnerability or who view being vulnerable as a weakness.

Dack notes that questions about past relationships — or a lack thereof — can dredge up feelings of shame for those who view themselves as inexperienced. “We want to help them feel vulnerable and authentic while being confident about what they have to offer. With men in particular, there are societal expectations and poor dating advice telling them to portray themselves as super successful, masculine or strong. Sometimes, this can come off as sales-y or disingenuous,” she says. “I encourage my clients to be more open and real.”

“Remind clients that it’s important to be authentic and truthful, but there are layers to sharing,” she continues. “It’s important to share at an appropriate pace. [Find] balance in disclosure. Also, reading your date’s body language and responses is an important skill. My approach is very direct and feedback-oriented so [clients] can practice self-disclosure in a healthy way and learn what comes off as fake or manipulative.”

Be mature rather than anxious: Smith uses the word “mature” with clients to describe behaviors and reactions that are the opposite of anxious. This often comes up in conversations about online dating, she says. For example, when a match doesn’t text after a date or respond to messages right away, the client might be tempted to react in anxious ways: checking and rechecking the app, obsessing over the date’s social media accounts or barraging the person with follow-up messages.

With clients who find themselves overthinking aspects of the dating process, Smith says it can be helpful for a counselor to ask, “How would you know you are doing this as maturely as possible? How would you interact with this differently than you are now? What’s the mature way? What’s the anxious way, and how do you know the difference between the two?”

“Believe it or not,” she says, “there is a mature way to interact with these apps. The word ‘maturity’ helps people figure out a way to not let it take over their life or not make them want to throw their phone across the room. The more maturely you engage with it, the better the chance that you will match with someone who is mature and handling it well.”

Interrupt the negative spiral: Clients may approach online dating with negative assumptions that it won’t work out, especially if they harbor feelings of self-doubt or shame associated with being single, Dack says. Those feelings can be exacerbated when clients experience rejection or when they aren’t getting many responses from potential matches.

“They may be operating on a narrative that they’re not worthy,” Dack explains. “It can be very challenging to hold on to the belief that love will happen for you. That can be a very challenging belief to sit with. Feeling good about yourself and believing you have something to offer is a key part of dating success. But if it’s not going well, it’s hard to feel good about yourself. They may take the ups and downs personally.”

Counselors can equip clients to quell this negative cycle by teaching them how to use positive self-talk, Dack suggests. The intervention can help clients overwrite the negative thoughts and messaging that “can get particularly loud with bad dating experiences,” she says.

Dack works with clients to create positive affirmations that they can refer to whenever they’re feeling low. For instance, she says, counselors can help clients replace thoughts such as “I’m going to end up alone” or “I’m doomed in the love department” with messages such as “I am open and ready for love,” “I am committed to connecting with others,” “I am worthy of the type of relationship I’m looking for” and “I choose to accept and grow from my challenging relationships and breakups.”

In session, counselors can listen to clients’ language and point out cognitive distortions to help steer them away from negative thought patterns. For example, a client might remark “My dating life never goes right, so why bother?”

“They’re in an internal conflict because they really do want to date and find a satisfying relationship. It’s important to change any self-defeating narratives because these beliefs are going to make them feel worse,” Dack says. “Offer a realistic perspective while trying to step out of their self-narrative. If they say, ‘All men are jerks,’ break that down [with the client]. Look for exceptions and positives that can foster hope and clear out mental blocks.”

Helping clients focus on what they are able to control in the experience can also shift thinking away from the negative, Dack adds. For instance, they are not able to control whether a match responds to a message. However, they can pick and choose which dating apps they use,
what they say about themselves in their online dating profile and other aspects
of the process.

Accept some anxiety as natural: Counselors who understand online dating can help clients set realistic expectations about the process and prepare them for the reality that meeting new people and opening themselves to rejection is bound to involve some measure of anxiety, Dack says.

“With anxious clients, it’s important for counselors to understand that dating is basically exposing them to constant anxiety — everything from waiting to hear back from a date to showing up for a date and figuring out the frequency of communication,” Dack says. “It can be mentally exhausting, but it can also be really good. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. The anxiety about it is natural to living a full life. Anxiety is normal in dating, and it doesn’t have to keep you from dating. The more skill and intention that clients bring to their dating life, the better it goes.”

 

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Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Helping clients with post-date anxiety

By Kathleen Smith October 15, 2018

As a counselor, I have a front-row seat for watching anxiety develop in new relationships. It is truly fascinating to observe how quickly two people can become emotionally stuck together. A therapy client will leave for a week and return reporting that he or she has started dating someone new. This former stranger now has the power to make my client very happy or very anxious. Thanks to their phone, my client might spend all day analyzing a text they received — or worrying about the lack of one.

Not a week goes by without me having multiple conversations with people about texting in relationships. For instance, a person is seeing someone who doesn’t quite contact them as frequently as they would like, so their brain sounds the rejection alarm. When the other person finally does text them, their anxiety level goes down. But within a day or two, they need more reassurance. They’ve surrendered their capacity to calm down to someone who was a stranger to them a week ago. And the only way they know how to get that capacity back is to end the relationship.

I don’t think that texting causes emotional dependence, but it can certainly accelerate it and reinforce it. People used to have to wait much longer to hear from a prospective romantic partner. Now people want to hit the eject button if there’s been radio silence for 24 hours. There is an expectation that someone who is interested in us must also be available to us at all times. We are in such a hurry to lock things down as a way of managing our own anxiety and insecurity.

I’m in no position to throw a stone here. After my husband and I went on our first date, he waited five days to ask me out again. Five. Days. For millennials, five days is the equivalent of somebody going off to war and coming back home. Now, of course, I know that he was a mature human being who was simply living his life at that time. But if you retrieved my phone records from that week, I bet you would see a blizzard of worried texts to friends.

When our counseling clients become more anxious in a new relationship, they don’t suddenly become more insightful. They usually just double down on whatever they’ve already been doing. That usually means anxiously focusing even more on this new person. They might stalk them on social media, or stare at their phone trying to decipher old texts. They’ll talk to all their friends about whether they should dump this person for taking so long to reply. They’ll come to a counseling session and ask me to guess what this person — whom I have never met coincidentally — is thinking.

When we feel the potential to be hurt, it makes sense that we focus more on the threat and how to avoid it. This works great if a lion is chasing us. It’s not so great for being in a relationship.

People see a lot of lions when they date, simply because dating is such an anxious endeavor. They interpret a lack of constant contact in a new partner as a sign of flakiness, disinterest or duplicity. People don’t stop to consider whether less contact might be a potential sign of maturity. This is why people tend to end up with other people who are at the same level of emotional maturity as themselves. People who have a higher degree of maturity in their family relationships are likely to seek out a partner who wants the same amount of contact.

I would never say to a someone, “Have you considered that this person is not texting you as much because they’re more mature?” Because that would be a guess based on zero facts. What I do challenge people to do, however, is to see their part in the relationship. Often, if people can stay focused on being the person they want to be rather than on trying to control this new love interest of theirs, then their anxiety will go down. And most of the time, people do not want to be the kind of person who is glued to their phone 24/7.

So, the goal isn’t for clients to change their new crush or to teach the person how to text that Goldilocks (just right) amount. The goal is to lower clients’ anxiety enough to where they can actually think objectively and decide whether a relationship is right. That decision is impossible to make when anxiety is very high, because then we interpret even the smallest behavior as a threat. People will blow up a relationship quickly in order to lower their anxiety.

Anxiety isn’t just present in romantic relationships, of course. We all want people to like us, reassure us and agree with us, but we ultimately can’t control them. People in our lives are not always going to respond as quickly as we would like. They’re not always going to RSVP to the party or share our level of enthusiasm for a television show. If clients can see how the anxiety they feel is a possible sign of emotional interdependence, they might be less likely to act immaturely or irrationally in their relationships. The rejections or silences won’t feel so threatening, and they won’t have to cancel that party out of spite or send a passive-aggressive message.

The simple truth is that we enjoy relationships more when we aren’t as anxiously focused on them. By being more of an individual, we can actually get closer to the people we love. Who doesn’t want that?

 

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Kathleen Smith is a licensed professional counselor and writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at kathleensmith.net.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

 

The lingering influence of attachment

By Laurie Meyers June 25, 2018

A few years ago, American Counseling Association member Lisa Bennett took a trip to Southeast Asia. While there, she thought it would be fun to visit an elephant sanctuary where sick and injured animals had been sent to heal. What she saw fascinated her. The elephants engaged in attachment behavior.

Among herds, young elephants are raised not just by their mothers but by an older female who has already had babies and “retired,” moving on to another tribe. These older females return to their original herd, however, to serve as nannies to the young elephants. Bennett noticed that the nanny elephants seemed to be teaching the mother elephants how to connect with their calves.

“Nannies will literally push the mother toward the calf when the calf is in need and will model to the mother the actions to take to secure the calf’s safety and security,” Bennett says. The calves still viewed the mothers as their primary attachment figures but also displayed an attachment to the nanny elephants.

Of course, as a professor and director of clinical mental health counseling at Gonzaga University in Washington state, Bennett knows that attachment theory has even bigger ramifications for counselors and the clients they serve. All humans are born with the need for engagement with and responsiveness from other humans, says Bennett, who studies and gives presentations on attachment theory. People need to be touched, to be stimulated, to feel safe and to believe that someone — usually their primary caregiver or caregivers — will provide things for them. In other words, people need to be “attached.” If children don’t feel as if they have reliable attachment figures — a source for stability and safety — they are more likely to experience anxiety and have difficulties trusting others and forming relationships, Bennett says.

Bennett recently took a group of students from various programs, including clinical mental health, marriage and family therapy, and school counseling, to a wildlife park containing elephants. She wanted them to observe attachment in action in the animal kingdom and apply what they saw to human behavior.

Interestingly, Bennett’s group also observed that elephants can transfer their attachments to humans. In the park, there was no way for retired females to return to their old herds. As a result, there were no elephant nanny figures. However, whenever the human trainer appeared, the calves responded to him as if he were a nanny. Bennett believes that because human attachment is analogous to that of other animals, the elephants’ consistent attachment to a nanny figure showed that secondary attachment figures play an essential role in well-being.

Attachment theory is derived from the combined work of John Bowlby, a British child psychologist and psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist. The theory posits that infants have an instinctual survival-based need to form an emotional bond with a primary caregiver. This attachment provides a sense of safety and security. If children receive consistent attention and support from a caregiver, they are more likely to develop a “secure” attachment style. Children who do not receive consistent attention and support develop insecure — avoidant or anxious — attachment styles. Attachment style affects a person’s sense of self and shapes his or her ability to regulate emotions and form relationships.

Bennett notes that neurological research shows that humans are wired to make attachments, but these connections need to be reinforced, optimally between birth and age 2. However, children can become attached at an older age if they receive the right care and connection, she says. In addition, if a primary caregiver does not cultivate attachment in a child, another caregiver can provide that crucial link by responding to the child’s emotional and physical needs with “connection and delight,” Bennett says.

As children develop, they form a working model of the world and themselves, Bennett says. Children who have secure attachments tend to believe that they are lovable and likable and that other people are safe and kind and will meet their needs, she explains. Children whose needs are not being met generally develop one of two beliefs about themselves and the world. Those who have formed an avoidant style of attachment often believe that they are OK but that the world and the people in it are bad. Children who have developed an anxious style of attachment usually think that other people are generally benign but that they themselves are bad or unlovable, Bennett explains.

ACA member Joel Lane previously worked with children, adolescents and young adults and now supervises counseling trainees who work with this same population. He says that attachment issues often play a significant role in clients’ presenting concerns, either as the primary difficulty or as a complicating factor. With children and adolescents, much of Lane’s work consisted of helping these clients and their parents or caregivers understand one another’s needs better.

Attachment styles — and the interpersonal behaviors they engender — can form a lifelong emotional template. People with secure attachments know they can depend on those to whom they are attached to be available for support and vice versa, says Christina Schnyders, an assistant professor of counseling and human development at Malone University in Ohio and a frequent researcher and presenter on attachment issues. In contrast, anxious attachment creates fear that an attachment figure will not be dependable, she explains. In response to this fear, people with the anxious attachment style can become co-dependent and may also become frustrated or angry because their relational needs are not being met. People with avoidant attachment create distance from others to prevent having to depend on anyone or having anyone depend on them.

Each of these attachment behaviors affects how people function in crucial life areas such as family, peer and romantic relationships, Schnyders says. Attachment style can even influence a person’s career choice and interactions in the workplace.

Leaving the nest

Lane, an assistant professor in the counselor educator department and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Portland State University, studies attachment, particularly as it relates to the population known as “emerging adults” (those in their late teens to late 20s). Emerging adulthood is a time of tremendous interpersonal transition that usually involves an individual leaving the parental household, forming new friendship groups and getting more attachment needs met by peers — and particularly by romantic partners — rather than by family members or caregivers, he says.

Transferring attachment needs from parents or caregivers to peers is a process that typically begins in a person’s teens, says Schnyders, an ACA member and part-time college counselor at Malone. Parental attachment doesn’t become any less vital at this time; it’s just that peers are placed higher on the attachment hierarchy, she explains. In fact, having a secure attachment to parents or caregivers is critical to adolescents’ ability to make connections with their peers, says Schnyders, a licensed professional clinical counselor formerly in private practice.

“Attachment beliefs inform our sense of self and others, particularly during times of distress,” Lane says. For example, in stressful situations, people with attachment insecurity may believe they are incapable of dealing with the problem, he says. Stress may push those with anxious attachment to rely solely on other people rather than deploying their own problem-solving skills, whereas people with avoidant attachment may believe they cannot count on others to provide emotional support, causing them to withdraw from the support system and creating greater isolation, Lane explains.

In contrast, emerging adults who have formed secure attachments to peers and parents are more resilient and better able to handle changes, both good and bad, Schnyders says.

“Put simply,” Lane says, “attachment plays a major role in understanding our emotional needs and getting those needs met. And in emerging adulthood, it can be especially important since our emotional needs evolve, as do the groups of people whom we hope or expect to meet those needs.”

The question becomes, how can counselors help “fix” an attachment style that may be having a negative impact on multiple aspects of a client’s life?

Lane doesn’t believe it’s a matter of changing clients’ attachment styles. Rather, he says, counselors can help clients better understand and anticipate their attachment needs, which can lead to increased attachment security over time.

“I believe that the counseling relationship provides clients with corrective attachment experiences,” he says. “When we feel heard, seen and understood, insecure attachment beliefs are challenged, and secure attachment beliefs are reinforced. Over time, this can have a powerful impact on how we view ourselves and how we view others. We can also help our clients learn to better understand their attachment needs and communicate those needs to others.”

Schnyders uses psychoeducation to teach clients the differences between secure and insecure attachment. She then uses cognitive behavior therapy to help clients understand how their insecure attachment has created core, irrational beliefs. Schnyders and the client then work together to reframe and restructure these beliefs. This allows clients to acknowledge and address the insecurities and fears that drive their behavior, better enabling them to modify their personal interactions.

Schnyders says that narrative therapy can also be useful, particularly with emerging adults. She guides clients as they create a narrative riddled with problems connected to their attachment style. Once that narrative is constructed, Schnyders and the client work to create an alternative storyline that focuses on elements of secure attachment and talk about how to work toward that story.

Attachment and romantic relationships

“Attachment drives the way we experience ourselves and our significant others,” Bennett says. “It provides a lens for how we see and interpret them.”

There is no consensus on whether attachment styles influence the selection of people’s romantic partners, says Bennett, who works with couples in her private practice. At the same time, she can’t help but noticing the number of anxious and avoidant pairings in her office.

“Put simply, one keeps pushing or nagging at the other to be present, and the other is a great escape artist,” Bennett says. “Both [are] driven by their styles and both [are] really chasing the other off, even though that is not what either one wants.” The doubts and fears that drive such behavior are barriers to real intimacy, she adds.

To help couples identify and break the patterns that are sowing discord, Bennett teaches them about attachment theory and how their individual styles can affect the relationship. She then helps couples develop secure attachment behavior by teaching them how to be more available, accessible and responsive to each other.

Bennett says she often finds that couples don’t know what a nonsexual warm connection looks like, so she teaches them how to greet, touch and talk in nonsexualized ways that express love and care. Vulnerability is also a big issue. Couples need to be willing to be vulnerable with their partners and, conversely, to react gently, she says.

Bennett also frequently works with couples on how to change their “demands” to “requests” and how to respond to each other’s requests with warmth. In addition, relationship partners often need to learn how to apologize to each other, how to talk about their fears and anxieties with each other, how to listen to each other and how to turn to each other for support, Bennett says. Finally, she advises couples to get in the habit of immediately repairing any relationship “ruptures” rather than allowing them to fester and build.

People with attachment issues often have difficulty expressing themselves, which can lead to frustration and misunderstanding. Partly for that reason, Schnyders does a good deal of assertiveness training with couples to improve their communication. Learning to be assertive allows clients to communicate their needs without discounting the feelings of their partners.

When teaching assertive communication, Schnyders instructs clients to use “I” statements such as I want this. I believe this. I need this. In the process, she strives to change the way clients see themselves.

Schnyders tells the story of a 60-something female client with a pattern of insecure attachment. Schnyders had been focusing on self-esteem with the client, encouraging her to believe that she was a person of value and worth. The client was also having problems communicating with her husband, who had a habit of speaking at her rather than to her and treating her dismissively.

One day, the client came in and told Schnyders about a breakthrough. A recent encounter with her husband had devolved, as it usually did, to him speaking disrespectfully to her. All of the sudden, the woman found herself exclaiming to her husband, “You can’t speak to me like that. I am a person with value and worth!”

Her declaration stopped the husband in his tracks and, soon thereafter, their relationship dynamic began to change. With the client standing up for herself and beginning to believe that she was worthy of respect, Schnyders asked her to consider what she needed from her husband. The woman said she wanted to be able to hear and understand his needs without diminishing her own. Schnyders and the client then talked about how she and her husband could work together rather than following their previous pattern, which involved the woman placating him rather than standing up for herself.

Sometimes, just slowing down an interaction can improve communication. In couples and family therapy, rather than letting clients have rapid back-and-forth exchanges, Schnyders will slow the conversation and have participants tell their partners or family members what they need from them. Schnyders will then ask the partners or family members to repeat what they have heard because sometimes conflict arises from an inability to listen to what someone else is saying.

Attaching to a career

Like all areas of life that involve interacting with others, work can sometimes be tricky for those with insecure attachments. As Schnyders explains, if a person doesn’t trust their co-workers and can’t communicate and interact with them effectively, that person’s performance is going to be hampered, perhaps even putting them at risk of losing their job.

But attachment style can also play a role in the job search itself, says Stephen Wright, a professor of applied psychology and counselor education at the University of Northern Colorado. Wright, an ACA member, studies how attachment style affects career choice and decision-making in college students.

When it comes to considering careers, people who are securely attached have an advantage because they are less likely to perceive career barriers, according to Wright. In other words, they have more confidence in their innate strengths and their ability to cope with challenges. Those with secure attachment also are more likely to have a stable support system of people who bolster their confidence and may even have contacts that will assist in the career search, Schnyders says.

In contrast, those with insecure attachment are more likely to perceive many reasons that they will not succeed in a particular career field or in the career search itself, Wright says. These individuals are also less likely to have a support system in place.

That’s one area where professional counselors can come in. Counselors not only serve as a secure base for clients but can also boost their feelings of self-efficacy in various areas, which can diminish the effects of insecure attachment, Wright says.

By providing a strong sense of support, counselors may help insecurely attached clients perceive fewer barriers. Setting and completing specific goals — even small ones, such as researching a new profession — can help strengthen these clients’ sense of accomplishment and confidence, Wright says. If clients have shown interest in a particular career area, helping them learn more about it and explore the various jobs available in the profession can increase their sense of self-efficacy in that area, he says. If clients lack the required skills for a specific job, counselors can assist them in developing a plan to acquire those skills rather than let them perceive their current situation as an insurmountable barrier, Wright says. He also suggests that counselors use career models to assist these clients with decision-making and identifying their job-related strengths and weaknesses.

Recovering from child sexual abuse

Research indicates that people with secure attachment style find it easier to recover from child sexual abuse, says Kristina Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi who studies and works with survivors of child sexual abuse. Having secure attachment provides these individuals with a safe base from which to explore and process their experiences, leaving them better able to regulate their emotions, she says. The feeling of security from healthy attachment serves as a form of support in and of itself, adds Nelson, who was previously a private practitioner in Florida.

Survivors with insecure attachment styles have typically received inconsistent or limited support throughout their lives, and this leaves them feeling unsure of whom to trust, Nelson says. In addition, they often don’t know how to regulate their emotions or how to begin the process of recovery.

Counselors can offer the support that those with insecure attachment styles have lacked throughout their lives, Nelson says. “Counselors can actually serve as a secure base for a client. [They can] be that consistent presence by providing that constant positive regard, allowing them to explore and make sense of their experiences.”

Counselors can also help these clients learn how to regulate their emotions. Nelson often recommends deep breathing techniques to her clients and adds that some people find meditation helpful. She cautions, however, that because meditation involves closing one’s eyes in a dark room, it may be a trigger for sexual abuse survivors, so counselors should proceed carefully.

Psychoeducation about attachment styles can also help clients gain awareness about why they react the way they do and how they developed their coping mechanisms, Nelson says.

Permanently attached?

So, is everyone stuck with their childhood attachment styles for life? Not necessarily, say Bennett and Lane. Although attachment style is usually pretty stable, there are cases in which it can change.

“The idea here is that we have core perspectives that tend to drive core styles,” Bennett says. “I’d venture that friendships and workplace relationships can have an impact, but our primary home styles are more likely to set the tone.”

“If impacted by social and work settings, we can repair by going home, by changing up friendships, by moving jobs,” she continues. “If stuck in an unhealthy work environment or social setting without recourse or the capacity to go home and mend, it makes sense that we’d alter to a less secure base, sadly.”

This is also true in relationships, Bennett says. For example, if a spouse repeatedly behaves in ways that erode the person’s trust in the spouse or in themselves, then that person’s attachment style can warp into a less secure one, she says.

Lane says there is some evidence that insecure attachments can become more secure throughout adulthood. He believes this may happen as people shift their attachment needs to people of their own choosing rather than the families they were born into or the caretakers they were placed with.

“I think that important interpersonal experiences influence and are influenced by one another,” he says. “When we regularly experience our needs being met as infants, we are more likely to be able to form healthy interpersonal relationships throughout life. However, adverse life and interpersonal experiences can still disrupt our attachment system, especially after multiple significant adverse experiences. The reverse also seems to be true — insecure attachments in childhood decrease the likelihood of healthy attachment relationships later in life. However, when those healthy relationships occur, they can influence our attachment orientations toward being more secure.”

 

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Related reading

To learn more about issues related to attachment, read the following articles previously published in Counseling Today and available on the CT Online website at ct.counseling.org:

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.